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The new face of sex ed

It’s a class offered to almost every student, yet not everyone wants to talk about it. In the past, it was referred to simply as “sex ed,” and, in various incarnations, it has been folded into wellness, health or self-esteem classes.

Whatever you may call it, “sex ed” these days isn’t solely focused on, well, sex. In fact, instructors in western Nevada County schools downplay the risque side of health classes, touting their value in promoting healthy lifestyles.

Each of Nevada County’s 10 school districts is responsible for developing its own health curriculum, dealing only marginally with traditional “sex ed” subjects, such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, and intimate relationships.



When it is discussed, abstinence is the base from which these subjects are taught.

Sharyn Turner, a registered nurse who coordinates the health education classes for Nevada County’s school districts, said the county’s socioeconomics and demographics contribute to it having the third-lowest birth rate per 1,000 females in the state.




In 2000, according to the California Health Family Council, only Placer and Marin counties had a lower birth rate per 1,000 females. Nevada County’s birth rate stood at 20 births per 1,000 females.

Being upfront with students about promiscuity and teaching the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases helps keep that rate low, Turner said.

Instead of shying away from such controversial topics, Turner said, it’s important to give students information in the classroom, lest they obtain it from the Internet or other sources where the information may be skewed or incorrect.

“They need to know real information,” she said. “As a health educator, I truly believe the parent is the best educator.”

Alana Walz, a senior at Nevada Union High School, said the high schools would do well to provide real-world examples to deter students from being promiscuous.

“Most of what we learned just came from a book, so it doesn’t leave a big imprint in your mind,” she said. “They pretty much do what they have to do.”

A secondary component that featured nutrition and first-aid, she said, was much more effective in developing life skills. Both Nevada Union and Bear River high schools offer CPR classes as part of the health curriculum.

Lew Sitzer, who teaches a health class at Nevada Union, said glossing over health risks may spare some embarrassment in the classroom but could end up ruining a student’s life.

“I would be remiss as a teacher if I didn’t cover those dangers,” he said.

The consequences of sex are life-altering, Turner said. They’re also discussed in a real-world sense.

The “Baby Think It Over” program pairs a student with a lifelike infant that is embedded with a chip that makes it cry and fuss when its owner fails to feed or nurture the infant. Its head bobs in much the same manner as a newborn’s does, and at about eight pounds, weighs slightly more than a day-old child.

Instructors can insert a key into the doll’s back to retrieve information about the care of the child.

The results can serve as a warning to those who believe they’re ready for intimate contact but don’t realize the consequences.

“I don’t want these kids to never be a parent, but I want them to look forward to parenting when they are at a point in their life that they are able to love them and care for them,” Turner said.

Regarding the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, Turner said it’s important to tell students how diseases, such as syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, can profoundly affect their lives.

“You may have (state test scores) that are off the charts that will get you into Harvard, but you may have HIV, and that means you may not live to get through it.”

Recently, Nevada County has explored several avenues to increase resources for health education. A resolution supporting a $285,000 grant to fund a three-year program would, in addition to promoting abstinence, fund clinics to provide birth control to sexually active youth.

The grant request was rejected by the state of California, in part, because of the county’s small population base, said Henry Foley, the county’s director of community health.

The grant was rejected on the same day the Nevada County Board of Supervisors voted reluctantly to support the grant request.

Per the California Education Code, students aren’t required to disclose their feelings regarding health classes. Students are also free to ask any question they choose, including questions about abortion.

The subject of abortion, Turner said, “comes up very rarely.”

As with any other health-related question, she said, “I always preface that I have the right to refuse to answer questions,” especially if they are asked simply for shock value.

“There’s nothing in the education code that says they can’t ask about it.”

In all, sexual education today comes down to making the right lifestyle choices, she said.

“If they don’t get the character-building, if they don’t feel good enough or worthy enough, they’re going to abuse their bodies.”


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